Update—Finds or Fakes?
Fifth-Graders Enter Where Goren Fears to Tread
“He [Tel Aviv University professor Yuval Goren] knew that an imitation of patina—the surface area that is visibly altered by the elements, providing a record of the stone’s interaction with its environment over time—could easily be faked in a lab.”
So reported journalist David Samuels in an April 12, 2004, article in the New Yorker. The question: Why, if it is so easy, did Professor Goren pass up the opportunity to win $10,000?
The May/June 2003 BAR offered $10,000 to anyone who could make a patina-covered inscription that would fool the experts. “It is often confidently asserted that it is easy to fake patina,” we wrote. Among those experts BAR quoted to this effect was Professor Goren: “An experienced artifact faker can sometimes fool the best experts … True patina can be created in the laboratory by various methods.”
The purpose of the competition was to test this proposition. Professor Goren, however, declined to enter.
Indeed, the only entrant was a creative group of home-schooled fifth graders from New Hampshire, who fashioned a replica of the controversial Jehoash tablet (which describes repairs to Solomon’s Temple).
Under the guidance of instructor Thomas Brackett III, the kids practiced lettering for a month before they actually began working on their tablet. The work itself took another two months. When the teacher told the kids that the original may have been displayed in the Temple and burned when it was destroyed by the Babylonians, his charges—Thomas Brackett IV, Sampson Ford and Blake Purdy—burned their tablet—made of Israeli sandstone purchased at a nearby hardware store—in a fire of cedar wood.
The students gave the stone its ersatz patina by burning it in sand mixed with cedar wood and dried horse manure (something we wish they had told us before we handled the tablet in our offices).
As good as the “New Hampshire tablet” may look to the untrained eye, it did not fool the experts we consulted.
Paleographer Christopher Rollston, of Emmanuel School of Religion, in Tennessee, who examined the letters of the inscription, nevertheless remarked, “If these were my kids, I would be very proud of them. This project must have been a delightful learning experience, and their product reflects some real creativity.”
We also sent the tablets to Richard Newman, head of scientific research at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He used electron microscopy to examine the tablet 053but was unable to detect a weathering layer. “It looks burned, but there’s nothing stuck there that you’d get from a burial environment,” Newman told BAR.
Meanwhile, Professor Goren demonstrated on the Web how easy it would be for a sophisticated forger to fool everyone. First, Professor Goren engraved in a suitable stone the name “David” in paleo-Hebrew letters, using an iron tool (cleverly specifying an iron tool because it will leave no trace of nickel or chromium). To make the engraving look old, he then “aged” the inscription by airbrushing it with quartz powder. Next, he ground some of the stone on which he had engraved “David” and, using an ultrasonic bath, mixed it with water to make a paste. He coated the paste on the inscription and baked the stone for several hours in an oven to harden the patina.
We showed the result of Professor Goren’s “David” to paleographer Rollston, who noted, “Of course, Professor Goren’s area of expertise is not epigraphy. I would hope that no trained epigrapher would conclude that his dwyd is ancient. Nevertheless, the quality of his ‘fake’ is not bad.”
As for the patina, Professor James Harrell, a geologist at the University of Toledo and a specialist in the study of ancient stone, commented, “Patinas that develop upon exposure to the atmosphere tend to be rich in iron and/or manganese oxides with variable amounts of clay regardless of the kind of rock it forms on. If the artifact has been buried then the patina will reflect the composition of the enclosing soil/sediment more than that of the rock. However, Goren’s method is designed to reproduce the observed patina on the tablet and is reasonable as far as it goes, but this is not the way to make a naturalistic patina. His ultrasonic bath seems to do nothing useful. He could make the same rock paste by simply adding water to the ground rock. The ultrasonic treatment would tend to separate grains by their size and density into a series of gradational layers but Goren apparently uses all of the paste, rather than just the top or bottom layer, and so I don’t see the point of the ultrasonic bath.” Harrell concluded, “I would not take what he says too seriously. He claims the ‘Jehoash inscription is almost certainly a forgery,’ but from his presentation I think the strongest thing anyone could claim at this point is that it may be a forgery.”
The End of the Line
By January 1, 2005, we will know. By the end of this year, the Israel Antiquities Authority will tell us whether they really have the goods or whether they are pulling one huge bluff.
Since the very beginning, the IAA has insisted that it is certain that the James ossuary inscription (“James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”) is a forgery and that the owner Oded Golan is a forger. No ifs, ands or buts about it. As deputy director of the IAA, Uzi Dahari, has put it, it is not 99 percent certain, it is 100 percent certain.
On the other hand, the IAA has shown a peculiar lack of confidence in its evidence. That is, if it has the evidence, why doesn’t the government charge the man (in court, rather than in the newspapers) and indict him for forging the inscription on the ossuary (or at least forging the reference to Jesus)?
The investigation has gone on for more than two years. More than a hundred potential witnesses have been interrogated. Thousands of documents have been assembled.
But no charge has been filed.
In the end, it became even more embarrassing for the government. The IAA and the police have confiscated hundreds of items from Golan’s antiquities collection, including the ossuary, or bone box, with the now-famous inscription. According to Israeli law, the authorities are entitled to keep these confiscated items for three months. After the government obtained several time extensions from an Israeli court, ossuary owner Oded Golan opposed these applications for extensions, claiming that the government should either charge him so that he can clear his name or return the confiscated items, including the ossuary.
On January 11, 2004, the head of the police investigation stated to the court that “the investigation is close to completion and the authorities require several weeks before a charge is made.” But nothing happened.
At a hearing on May 10, 2004, the court began to show some impatience with the government’s plea for extension after extension. At this hearing, the government initially told the court it wanted to keep the confiscated items for an open-ended period until it completed its investigation. Then it offered to compromise for a six-month extension. However, the court gave it just three months—and then only after the court heard in camera (in secret, outside the presence of Golan or his lawyer) government assertions that the police had recently “opened up new avenues of investigation [that] are of significant international importance.”
In a lecture later in May in the United States, IAA deputy director Uzi Dahari indicated that an indictment would be filed within three or four months.a
Three and four months passed.b Again nothing happened. No indictment. No charges filed. So in early August 2004 the government again came into court requesting an extension. The court was losing patience with the government. The court found the government’s position “on its face unreasonable.” “It is not possible that the state should hold the rope from both ends, on one hand making serious allegations against the respondant [Golan], and on the other hand preventing Golan from facing 054the charges in court as part of a legal proceeding … therefore, I instruct the release of [all] the confiscated items, unless the applicant [the state] files an indictment by [September 1, 2004].” The judge also ruled that no further extensions would be granted.
The pressure was on. The government had to act within a matter of weeks. It could easily bring an indictment and continue the investigation, however.
But it didn’t. The government waited until a few days before the deadline to appeal the district court’s ruling to a higher court. Why did the government take a chance on an appeal rather than simply bring an indictment? The simplest explanation would appear to be that it had no confidence in its evidence, or that it didn’t have sufficient evidence to bring an indictment.
At the hearing on the appeal, the government again asked for an unlimited extension. In the end, a compromise was reached. Golan agreed to another extension—to January 1, 2005. And the government agreed that it will not ask for any more extensions.
So the jig is almost up. By the end of the year, Oded Golan will either be indicted, or he will get his ossuary (and other artifacts) back.
But that is not quite the end of the story. What will Golan be charged with? The world wants to know whether the inscription on the ossuary is a forgery. Will that be the charge in the indictment?
While in Jerusalem recently I had dinner with Police Major Yonatan Pagis, who is in charge of the investigation into the supposed forgery conspiracy that includes the ossuary. Yoni rattled off a series of charges he intended to bring against Golan. This is consistent with the claims the government has made in other hearings: fraud, interfering with the investigation, money laundering, trading in antiquities without a license, exporting antiquities without a permit, selling property illegally. I asked Yoni if he would charge Golan with running a red light. “Absolutely,” he replied. “If I catch him running a red, I will charge him.” The police are clearly out to get him. So the final question may be: Is Oded Golan purer than Caesar’s wife?
Prominent Paleographer Backs Ossuary Inscription
In a recent letter to BAR, Ada Yardeni, the second most prominent paleographer (a specialist in scripts) in Jerusalem, has reaffirmed her conviction that the James ossuary inscription (“James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”) is authentic.
“I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the James ossuary inscription,” she wrote, having reviewed the statements of the Israel Antiquities Authority committee that found it to be a forgery and other materials subsequently published on the now-famous bone box.
In this respect, she reflects the same views as one of the world’s most distinguished paleographers, André Lemaire of the Sorbonne, who wrote the original article on the inscription in BAR.
About the authenticity of the Jehoash (or Yehoash) inscription, supposedly recording repairs to the Solomonic Temple by King Jehoash of Israel, Yardeni wrote, “There is more doubt.”
Yardeni has examined the ossuary inscription itself on more than one occasion. She drew the inscription for the original article in BAR.
Several scholars have suggested that a forger copied one letter of the inscription (dalet) from the only other ossuary inscription we 055know of that mentions a brother. Yardeni squarely rejects this contention: “I don’t see any similarity between the somewhat distorted dalet of this inscription and the dalet in [the other ossuary inscription from which it was supposedly copied.]”
As to the contention that the first and last parts of the inscription were written by different hands, Yardeni wrote: “While tracing the letters, I have not observed any difference in the depth of the engraving between the two parts of the inscription.” (This is also the judgment of the eminent French paleographer Emile Puech of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, who has written, “The same scribe engraved the entire inscription.”)
All of this only emphasizes the fact that no experienced paleographer who has published inscriptions from the same period has raised any questions as to the paleography of the inscription.
What about the most prominent Israeli paleographer? Interesting that you should raise that question. His name is Joseph Naveh, of Hebrew University. He is famous for being a doubter, a pessimist. He is the first to suspect a forgery. A question by Yossi Naveh casts a long shadow on any inscription. His is an especially interesting case as it relates to the James ossuary. He has seen it. He has examined it. While he was not a part of the committee of the Israel Antiquities Authority that declared both the ossuary inscription and the Jehoash inscription to be forgeries, the report of the charge given to the committee specifically states that the committee “would, if needed, consult with Prof. Y. Naveh, an authority on ancient Hebrew writing of international repute.” Naveh has expressed himself loudly and clearly concerning the paleography of the Jehoash inscription. He has no doubt that it is a forgery. But what does he say about the ossuary inscription? Nothing! Nothing from an authority whose history indicates that he has no reluctance whatsoever to question an inscription that is doubtful paleographically.
Frank Cross, recently retired from Harvard and America’s leading paleographer, is another interesting case. Cross examined the ossuary inscription and declared, “If this is a forgery, the forger is a genius.” Cross subsequently decided the inscription is a forgery, but his decision was not based on paleographic grounds. Indeed, he has confirmed his earlier conviction that there is no reason to question the authenticity of the inscription on paleographic grounds. Cross thinks the inscription is a forgery, however, because the rosettes engraved and painted on the other side of the ossuary are badly weathered while the inscription opposite is not badly weathered. Cross is no expert on the differential weathering of ossuaries, and André Lemaire has shown that different parts of ossuaries weather differently. No other scholar has taken up and expressed support for Cross’s reasoning with respect to weathering.
In the August 30, 2004 issue of Newsweek, Duke University professor Eric Meyers said “Something like the vast majority of scholars think it’s a forgery.” Whether that is true, he cannot be speaking for the paleographers.
The judgement that the inscription is a forgery is most commonly based on the simple uninformed judgment that “It’s too good to be true,” or, as in Professor Meyers’ case, for unexplained reasons that the inscription is simply “impossible.”
See our web site (www.bib-arch.org) for the full text of Dr. Yardeni’s letter.
Goren Spreads a Rumor
Ever wonder how a rumor gets started? Misunderstanding? Mishearing? Purposeful?
Yuval Goren, the scholar/archaeologist/geologist of Tel Aviv University who almost single-handedly leads the charge against the authenticity of the James ossuary inscription (“James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”) is not a shoemaker who sticks to his last. He is also an active participant in the rumor mill.
At the same time that the committee of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) condemned the James ossuary inscription as a forgery, it reached the same conclusion regarding another inscription known as the Jehoash (or, in Israel, the Yehoash) inscription, which describes repairs to the Solomonic Temple by King Jehoash. There are indeed paleographical reasons to question the authenticity of Jehoash inscription, although some scholars say the case has not been proved.c There would seem no reason, however, to engage in rumor mongering here. The debate should proceed solely on a scientific basis.
A rumor has nevertheless circulated that the Jehoash inscription was offered to the Israel Museum for $4 million. We have traced the source of this rumor to none other than Professor Yuval Goren. The director of the Israel Museum, James Snyder, has confirmed that the inscription was never offered to the museum at any price. So we asked Professor Goren for the source of his assertion that it had been offered to the museum for $4 million. He declined to tell us.
Perhaps he will reveal his source, assuming there is one, to the Israel Antiquities Authority, which is investigating the matter. Or will the IAA ask him?
A Lost Cause
A Response from Shimon Gibson on the James Ossuary Inscription
I attended Hershel Shanks’s lecture on the James ossuary at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem on September 1st, 2004 [a DVD of the lecture is available for $9.95; call 800–221-4644 to order. You can view a trailer on our Web site: www.bib-arch.org—Ed.]. The lecture positively brimmed with Hershel’s distinctive brand of humor, sarcasm and oratory. Cameras were positioned around the hall, and there was a buzz of excitement and expectation in the audience. It felt like being in a courtroom, instead of a lecture hall, and as the lecture proceeded I almost expected Hershel to come out with the words “and so, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the decision regarding the innocence of the James ossuary is now in your hands.” But he didn’t. His guns were aimed directly on the Israel Antiquities Authority and on the effectiveness of its performance vis-à-vis its investigation of the authenticity of the James ossuary inscription. While there was a representative of the Israel Antiquities Authority present, Amir Ganor (seated in the last row), the audience was not provided with any immediate official response to Hershel’s savaging of the IAA, nor was there a reply regarding how the experts of the IAA had determined that the ossuary inscription was a forgery. A pity, but I can only suppose that this is because the James ossuary and its alleged forged inscription are now a matter sub judice, and that the affair first has to be resolved legally in the courts before the IAA can make any response to the accusations Hershel has leveled against it.
And so what’s the point of my now jumping into the fray? The reason is because of an indirect “below the belt” attack on my judgment made in the July/August 2004 issue of BAR (“Three New Rumors”) in regard to the credibility of two Hebrew University archaeology students, Orit Peleg and Rafi Lewis, and a statement about the possible provenance of the James ossuary. Hershel did say to me recently in Jerusalem that he sincerely believes in giving a person a “right to reply” when there is a substantial 056disagreement about something written in BAR, so here goes.
With all humility, I consider myself a fair person with an open mind and not one to make rapid judgments about anything, or at least until I feel I know I have examined and weighed carefully all the archaeological evidence known to me about a given site or artifact. On face value, one has to say that the amount of attention the James ossuary has received seems to me to be out of all proportion to its apparent significance. But this is a personal opinion.
The ossuary itself is undoubtedly real, but the authenticity of its inscription, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” is still very much a matter of contention, and rightly so. There are two main reasons for this: the ossuary’s questionable provenance and the scientific testing that has been done on it.
In regard to the latter, I am no expert on geological determinations, but it does seem to me a certainty that even if there is a slightest hint that the inscription has been tampered with, whether through intentional or unintentional cleaning (e.g. with detergents by the collector/dealer Oded Golan’s mother), the inscription has therefore to be regarded as dubious. I am not saying the inscription is a fake, but the way it has been cleaned (and the resulting patina-like material within the incised letters) must now render it highly suspect.
In regard to the questionable provenance, let me just say that there is an enormous difference between an artifact found in an archaeological context and an artifact originating within the collection of an antiquities collector/dealer. And let’s be absolutely frank about this: A collector/dealer sets his or her sights on owning and trading in artifacts, and money is usually the medium that lubricates this process. Making money and possessing artifacts is not the ultimate goal of archaeologists, which is the reason why after close to 25 years in archaeology I am still as poor as a church-mouse (as the saying goes) and why I do not have a life of luxury.
Oded Golan, the owner of the ossuary, may be a sensitive soul, spending considerable time (as Hershel tells us) practicing music on his white grand piano, but this does not necessarily endear him to me, nor does it have any effect whatsoever on the question of Golan’s motives. Had he wanted to be a scholar/museum curator/archaeologist, he could very well have made that his career. He didn’t, and as a result any object passing through his hands must be automatically regarded with a healthy dose of suspicion. As an archaeologist pursuing the “truth” (or truths) of the past, through hard research and the piecing together of masses of evidence both in the field and from publications, I have a hard time finding sympathy for a person who is supposedly knowledgeable and a crafty wheeler-and-dealer, but, as the story goes, just happens to leave the James ossuary lying around for many decades in his house without at any time being intrigued by what was written on it. Duh!
I fear that because of the hullabaloo that has arisen around the James ossuary, we shall probably never ever find out the truth about the authenticity of its inscription. In his lecture, Hershel said that the time had now come to set aside professional antagonisms and preconceived ideas, to look at all the evidence (epigraphic and linguistic, archaeological and geological) realistically and without bias, suggesting also that an international team of experts be set up to look at the science and archaeology of the ossuary. Words of wisdom, but I fear that it is already too late and that the scholarly and general public have already made up their mind on the matter, one way or another: It is either a downright forgery and without any significance for science or history, or it is an authentic find from a dubious source that has been mucked about as a result of unprofessional cleaning and/or tampering.
I think we can set aside as baseless the accusation that there has been some kind of conspiracy out there of like-minded scholars and scientists who are out to prove the James ossuary as a forgery come what may. I know many of the people involved in the story, Yuval Goren and Avner Ayalon among others, and they are all very serious and responsible researchers. I myself worked in the IAA in a senior position for six years, and I cannot believe that my colleagues there would have the time or energy to get involved in such a conspiracy; after all, they have so much real and significant archaeological data on their hands that needs researching and publishing.
I have also spoken to Shuka Dorfman, Director-General of the IAA, and he has definitely set his sights on exposing forgers and fakers because of the harm that they wreak on the scientific integrity of archaeology, and I believe he should receive all the support that we can give. I do not know what specific evidence the IAA has in regard to Golan, but it does seem pretty sure that he is involved in questionable practices. I for one cannot judge the matter, but, as I have already mentioned, I find it incredibly strange that a “professional” collector/dealer would plead ignorance for so many decades regarding the reading of an ossuary inscription, especially one that was not lightly scrawled but is evidently very clear and can be read even by people with very little knowledge of ancient Hebrew and Aramaic. Judging by the pictures of Golan’s house, with everything meticulously labeled and in glass cabinets, I find the 057suggestion that he did not know the significance of the inscription hard to believe. It would be out of character. Hence, the possibility still exists that Golan came into possession of this ossuary (not necessarily with any inscription on it) not when he said he had, but at a more recent point in time.
Hershel, when I asked him for his gut feeling on this matter, said he simply did not know, but that he has always believed in Golan’s testimony. While Hershel definitely sincerely wants to obtain the truth about the ossuary and inscription, I feel he is being much too generous (and perhaps even blindly so) in his burning desire to believe everything Golan has told him, and this has to be dangerous.
As part of an editorial I wrote about the James ossuary affair in the Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society (volume 21, 2003), to precede an article written about the inscription by the eminent Emile Pueche of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, I reported in good faith on a visit made to the house of the collector/dealer Oded Golan by Orit Peleg and Rafi Lewis in December 2002. According to Hershel’s description of the event, one would think that Orit and Rafi had totally conflicting memories about what transpired and that one of them had lied. I can assure readers of BAR that since the publication of Hershel’s article I have spoken to both Orit and Rafi about this matter (on the telephone and later when they were guests at an impromptu dinner party at my place) and what Hershel has reported in his article is not exactly what transpired. Orit and Rafi were indeed on their way back from an archaeological conference at Bar-Ilan University and went to visit Golan. Orit says she was actually quite puzzled when Hershel had earlier referred her to Golan to receive help in regard to artifacts and computer programs to assist her with her Ph.D. research on Herodian architectural fragments from the Temple Mount. She couldn’t see how Golan could be an expert on such matters, but was willing to give it a try. As it turned out, Golan had neither architectural fragments nor computer programs that were of any use to her. But the visit was not completely worthless. During a discussion regarding architectural decorations appearing on ossuaries, the subject of the James ossuary was raised. According to Rafi, Golan spoke about the provenance of certain ossuaries in his collection and said they came from a variety of places round about Jerusalem, namely the areas of Giva’t Hamivtar, Mount Scopus and Silwan. When asked whether Silwan would also include part of the Hinnom Valley, Golan replied that it would and then went on to say that the James ossuary, for example, came from the Hinnom Valley. I asked Orit what she remembered of this exchange, and she says she remembers that the James ossuary was indeed mentioned by Golan but does not recall further details. This is not surprising as two years have elapsed since that meeting, and the subject was not something that particularly interested her and so she simply pushed it out of her mind. With Rafi it’s a different matter, since he had recently been working with me on a tomb in the Hinnom Valley. Rafi told me about the conversation with Golan on the same day upon his return to Jerusalem and since I quickly realized how surprising and contentious Golan’s statement was in regard to the provenance of the James ossuary, I suggested that Rafi immediately write down what he remembered of the conversation while it was still fresh in his mind. I am glad that I did so.
Let me make it clear that I have complete and utter confidence in Rafi’s sincerity and judgment, and I can confidently say that he would never have invented a conversation with Golan unless it had actually taken place, especially since Orit was also present. I asked Orit why she had been quoted in Hershel’s article as saying that her recollection of the meeting at Golan’s place differed substantially from that of Rafi. She told me that she was taken aback when, out of the blue, she received a telephone call from Hershel asking her probing questions about her visit to Golan two years earlier and whether or not the James ossuary had been discussed at that meeting. Hershel doesn’t seem to be aware of it, but his strong character and forceful charisma can be quite overwhelming at times, especially for young archaeology students like Orit. Orit admits she found herself in a quandary in the sense that she did not want to be dragged into an affair that was of no interest to her and had no inclination to get involved in a matter that she now knew was under police investigation. Hence her reaction was to admit nothing and to say she remembered nothing, hoping that the whole affair would go away. Orit said she did not think that Hershel would actually write up their telephone conversation and so was understandably shocked to find herself mentioned in Hershel’s article. She was also upset to see that because of her deliberate denial, Rafi came out of the story a downright liar.
A couple of days ago I took Hershel Shanks and Suzanne Singer to see an archaeological site I have been working on near Jerusalem. As we drove along I suggested to Hershel that he should have been aware, as the seasoned editor of BAR, with his considerable journalistic and archaeological experience extending over almost three decades, that he had placed Orit in a very difficult spot when he interrogated her about a short visit to Golan that had taken place two years earlier of which she only had a faint recollection.
Why should Golan have volunteered the information that the James ossuary came from the Hinnom Valley? We shall probably never know with certainty. In November 2002 it was claimed at the press conference organized by BAR that the ossuary had come from a location south of the Mount of Olives; publicly Golan has remained vague about its provenance. Perhaps Golan’s reference to the James ossuary 058as coming from the Hinnom Valley was a bit of bravado while trying to impress the students with the ossuaries in his collection? Perhaps the ossuary did actually come from a tomb in the Hinnom Valley and that what Golan said to the students was indeed the truth and slipped out unintentionally in an unguarded moment? As everyone knows, many a truth is spoken in private, even when in jest. But why the Hinnom Valley?
The Hinnom Valley extends to the west and south of the Old City and of the traditional Mount Zion, beginning close to Jaffa Gate and ending at the junction with the Kidron Valley, where it is quite deep with sheer rocky scarps along its edges. Numerous archaeological remains have been found within the valley, dating from the Iron Age through to medieval times. The only area of the Hinnom Valley that has ancient tombs where ossuaries could be extracted are those hewn in the rocky scarps of the lower Hinnom Valley, near the Monastery of Saint Onyphrius, and in the area above it known as Akeldama (“Field of Blood”; cf. Acts 1:19). There are probably a couple of hundred tombs in this area, and most of them have been visited by explorers and archaeologists since the 19th century. The present day appearance of the cemetery is quite sad: It is dilapidated and overgrown, with piles of modern construction materials and garbage heaps all over the place. Some of the tomb entrances that were visible in the 19th century are now buried under rubble. Those that may still be accessed are being used by drug addicts, and crawling around in some tombs one frequently comes across scattered syringes, broken hashish bottles and used condoms. All of these tombs were robbed out in antiquity or in recent centuries. Very few new tombs have been found in the area in recent decades. One of the most interesting of these was excavated by Gideon Avni and Zvi Greenhut, but it is unlikely that ossuaries were robbed from there. Another was cleared by the nuns of the Monastery of Saint Onyphrius, but all the signs are that the tomb was re-used in Byzantine times, and yet another (known as the “Spider Tomb”) was found behind the Monastery of Saint Onyphrius, but it too showed signs of having been robbed out in antiquity. This leaves two tombs secretly excavated in the 1990s by clandestine individuals seeking antiquities, both in the area close to the Crusader-period “Charnel House.” The first was found by Boaz Zissu, and it has a magnificently-carved façade. As chance would have it, I came across this tomb at more or less the same time while guiding students from the Jerusalem University College in the Hinnom Valley. The cave has not been excavated and there are no signs that ossuaries were extracted from there. The second cave is the one now known as the Shroud Tomb because of the discovery within one of its niches of the remnants of a burial shroud, which was subsequently radiocarbon-dated to the first century A.D. This cave was discovered by Boaz Zissu and Amir Ganor in 1998 and then blocked up. The shroud was uncovered during a subsequent robbing of the cave and discovered by myself and James Tabor and his students from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte during a visit to the Hinnom Valley for study purposes.
Large quantities of ossuaries were found in the cave, and many of these had been wantonly smashed by the looters. We assume that some complete ossuaries were carted off and sold to antiquities dealers. Could the James ossuary have come from the Shroud Tomb? This is definitely a possibility but something almost impossible to prove. Golan now says that he never ever made such a suggestion to Orit and Rafi linking the James ossuary with the Hinnom Valley, and so his testimony on the matter no longer exists.
There is, of course, one avenue of investigation that has not yet been checked. A group of medical researchers of the Hebrew University at Hadassah Hospital, headed by Chuck Greenblatt, have been working quite successfully on the DNA sequences connected to the skeletal evidence from the Shroud Tomb. Since I am told that some bone material has been found adhering to the bottom of the James ossuary, perhaps this material should now be extracted and its DNA compared to the DNA sequences that have already been obtained from the Shroud Tomb.
Having followed the James ossuary affair for some time now in the pages of BAR, a story which we have seen has numerous twists and turns, I sense a fatigue that is now settling in amongst my colleagues in regard to the whole business. How far can we go on talking about an ossuary that might have a forged inscription when there are so many other archaeological discoveries that have yet to see proper publication? The brouhaha about the ossuary, with partisan campaigning and with gossipy rumors flying all over the place, has now gotten out of control. It means the ossuary can no longer be dealt with neutrally and without fettered opinions. The result is that the layman is left confused by the whole affair and great harm has been done to the scientific integrity of scholarship and archaeology.
To sum up, I think we must reach some basic agreement about the James ossuary based on the evidence we currently possess and then move on. Let’s leave the interpretation and speculation and set forth the basic facts. First, the ossuary is of dubious origin (i.e. it is an artifact without apparent provenance from the collection of an antiquities dealer/collector). Second, the inscription is not in its pristine state with a patina in its grooves similar to the one covering the walls of the ossuary. Third, the ossuary was apparently cleaned or tampered with at some point in time and this means we shall probably never know whether the inscription (or part of it) is a forgery or not. What we are left with is an artifact with hardly any apparent archaeological or historical significance. Hence any attempt to pursue the truth about the James ossuary is definitely a lost cause.
I know you may find it difficult to accept this, Hershel, but just give it up. I know that there are many other archaeological causes out there for you to sink your teeth into.
Shanks Replies to Gibson
Shimon, your attack on the authenticity and significance of the ossuary inscription and at the same time your attack on the search for the truth is, unfortunately, typical of a significant segment of scholars, who, like you, have a gut feeling that the inscription is a forgery. Your letter does, however, provide me with an opportunity to reply to this frequently heard argument.
Your argument is three-fold: (1) The inscription is suspicious because it comes from the antiquities market rather than from a professional excavation; (2) The inscription has been cleaned, making scientific examination difficult, if not impossible; therefore its authenticity must be considered, at best, “dubious” and “highly suspect,” and (3), even if authentic, the ossuary and its inscription have little, if any, historical or archaeological significance.
You suggest I “give it up” and move on. You “sense a fatigue that is now settling in amongst [your] colleagues in regard to the whole business.” In this, you may be right. But, my friend Shimon, I don’t give up so easily. Your colleagues may tire; I do not. Not until the search for truth is exhausted. You say: “We shall probably never ever find out the truth about the authenticity of [the] inscription.” Again, you may be right. But there’s a lot more work to be done before I’m willing to reach that conclusion. That’s why I urge that the IAA simply let us pursue further investigation. That’s why I must publish the flaws that other scholars see in the work so poorly performed by the IAA.
I notice that you make no claim that paleographic or linguistic errors in the inscription unmask the forgery. Because there are none. You don’t even claim that the IAA scientists uncovered a forgery (as they incorrectly claim—a judgment you do not defend). You simply say we can no longer tell because the inscription has been cleaned.
Well, my answer is: Let’s allow some other scientists to examine the ossuary, and then we’ll see.
You say that the inscription isn’t important, even if authentic. Again, I disagree. It’s important to me and to billions of other people if this is a reference to the Jesus of the New Testament. (Even if it is authentic, scholars may argue about whether the reference is to the Jesus of the New Testament or to some other person named Jesus. Let’s simply allow scholars to present their arguments to the public, as Sorbonne scholar André Lemaire has done in these pages.) But just because we know Jesus existed doesn’t make an archaeological reference to him insignificant.
Shimon, it is unworthy of you to denigrate the significance of the inscription, even assuming it is authentic. If it is authentic, it will demonstrate that the Christian community in Jerusalem, as late as the 60s A.D., was still following Jewish burial practices and speaking Aramaic. As archaeological significance goes, this is no small matter. And this is only the beginning.
I do not claim that there is a conspiracy of scholars trying to deny the authenticity of this inscription. But I do think the IAA is biased against authenticity; and we have demonstrated this in detail in these pages. Why this is so gets us into speculation. Many reasons are circulating in Jerusalem. But we will not give voice to these speculations. However, we have never used the word conspiracy in regard to the behavior of the IAA. On the contrary, the IAA has charged that a conspiracy of scholars is responsible for forging this and other inscriptions. Uzi Dahari, chairman of the IAA committee that concluded the ossuary inscription is a forgery, has charged that “There are a lot of people we know who are part of the conspiracy—who utilize their Biblical, historical, archaeological and epigraphic expertise. Let’s say, Professor X and Mr. X, without saying their names. I know their names, but I won’t tell you at this time.” In short, it is the IAA that accuses scholars of being a part of a conspiracy.
A word about Orit Peleg and Rafi Lewis: I am sorry that my “strong personality and forceful charisma” caused Orit to deny that the James ossuary came up in the conversation she and Rafi had with Oded Golan. In any event, Orit—even according to you, Shimon—has no recollection of the substance of the conversation. Because the details are so important in this case, I asked Rafi to let me see a copy of his notes about the conversation that you asked him to make. He readily agreed. But then he informed me that IAA Director-General Shuka Dorfman and Uzi Dahari forbade him from giving me his notes. Have “no contact” with Hershel Shanks, he was told. He apologized to me profusely. But there was nothing he could do about it and he did not want to lose his job. What kind of behavior is this on the part of the IAA? At the time Rafi made these notes, he was not even an employee of the IAA. By what right does the IAA have the authority to tell Rafi not to show me his private papers? Is there any doubt as to why I am suspicious of the IAA?
In conclusion, Shimon, I believe we can determine—if we really try—whether the ossuary inscription is authentic or a forgery. And I believe that it really does matter.
To obtain a DVD of Hershel Shanks’s recent lecture on the James ossuary at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, go to www.bib-arch.org.